The history of the power industry is rich with references to Thomas Edison and the light bulb, Nikola Tesla and alternating current, and even Benjamin Franklin and the lightning rod.
“But you won’t read about the linemen who built the transcontinental power grid we have today, piece by piece,” says Alan Drew, a senior vice president at Northwest Lineman College in Meridian, Idaho. “Linemen never got the credit they deserved for all the things they built, yet they are so critical to our infrastructure.”
That realization came to Drew—a former lineman himself—and a colleague during a field expedition in Idaho, where they were studying original telegraph lines in a mining camp.
“At that point, we realized there were no books on their evolution and history,” Drew recalls. “We thought, ‘Why don’t we do it?’”
They did. The result is a written and photographic tribute to lineworkers called The American Lineman: Honoring the Evolution and Importance of One of the Nation’s Toughest, Most Admired Professions. The hefty coffee table book is stuffed with more than 500 images and illustrations.
‘Preserving the History’
For about four years during his off hours, Drew “chipped away” at the book, finishing it in 2016. His nearly 60 years’ experience in the field—he rose through the ranks at Pacific Gas and Electric and ran a public utility district before joining the college—provided rich background.
Drew also interviewed several electric co-op leaders for the rural electrification sections and mined the college’s archives.
“We’ve always had quite a commitment to preserving the history of the power delivery industry and in particular the lineman,” he says. “We want our students to understand how we got where we are, that it just didn’t happen. We typically weave a little history into the curriculum, and pleasantly, we’ve discovered students are interested.”
The first of the book’s eight chapters is “The Telegraph Era 1840–1870,” and the last is “The Digital Age 1990–2015.” In between, the authors show the trade’s growing sophistication and focus on safety.
“The numbers are sketchy, but they show that about one of every three linemen was killed in the early days,” Drew notes. “Early on, employers expected their employees to take risks to get the job done. It wasn’t anything like the environment today. There was no experience to draw from and no standards, and poles were cluttered with wires. Linemen didn’t even use belts. They climbed a pole and wrapped their leg around it.”
In The American Lineman, you won’t read about the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission or the North American Electric Reliability Corporation, but you will learn about the impact of the Occupational Safety and Health Administration, created in 1971. Companies came around with “safety rules they issued or requirements they made of employees and company union agreements,” Drew says.
You will also read about game-changing advancements in the field that saved linemen’s lives. The trade’s mechanical evolution made “linemen’s work a whole lot easier, safer, and more productive,” Drew notes. “In my opinion, bucket trucks, which came along in the late 1950s and early 1960s, were the biggest actual improvement.”
Not only did the vehicles minimize fall risks, but “fiber glass booms provided a degree of insulation in case [linemen] accidentally touched a hot wire … there would be a path to ground as if they were on poles.”
Mechanization also meant the end of digging and setting poles by hand. “When mechanical equipment started to be developed, you had a way to dig holes mechanically … derricks raised poles in the air, and cranes set poles and steel towers,” Drew says.
As a lineman, Drew worked several post-storm power restorations and encountered his share of close calls. But during his research, he found “the number and magnitude of ice storms, tornadoes, floods, hurricanes, and snow storms were eye-openers.
“It’s amazing the efforts linemen made over the years in adverse conditions,” he says. “That was an amazing accomplishment to think how much effort has been made over the years to get the power back on by linemen.”
Lest you think linemen have been toiling in obscurity, the book’s conclusion shows how lawmakers, Hollywood, and the industry itself have rolled out the red carpet in recent years—including events like lineman rodeos, which took off after the inaugural International Lineman’s Rodeo in 1984.
“That’s been a big change for linemen. They’ve always liked to show off their skills. And if you go farther back, when power companies had annual picnics for the employees in the 1930s and ’40s, they held linemen competitions for all the families to see,” Drew says. “And then you have Lineman Appreciation Day in April, the Fallen Linemen Organization, [industry DVD] Storm Soldiers, and [the movie] Life on the Line with John Travolta.”
He also thinks that power restoration efforts following recent catastrophic storms have resulted in more public recognition. “They’re starting to get the attention they deserve. We really feel good about that.”
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